Zen And The Ending Of THE SOPRANOS

Thirteen years ago tonight The Sopranos came to an end. I’ll never forget sitting in my living room in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, watching alone and thinking my cable went out in the final minutes. I sat there unsure what to do… and then the credits came up.

Over the years there have been arguments and there have been debates about just what happens in the final moments there in Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionery. Theories abound, and any time show creator David Chase speaks about it, people parse his every word for clues and hints. Was Tony Soprano killed? Did he die of a heart attack? Was it us, the audience, who was whacked? Or was this just the endless purgatory Tony would live in, unsure if the next time the door opened it would be someone to kill him or arrest him, a more intense version of Kevin Finnerty’s limbo, where Tony existed after being gutshot by Junior at the beginning of season six?

Recently we did a big Sopranos watch in my home – my first time through the whole series since the finale, and my girlfriend’s first time ever. Coming into the final season (one thing we can all agree on is that it’s season seven, right? Not “Season 6B”) I found my thoughts about the finale being different than they had in the past; I had rewatched the last episode previously, out of context of the whole series, but getting to it in binge mode was making it all land differently. Especially the way that Bobby pondered the question of whether you hear the bullet with your name on it, a quote that the show brought back in the penultimate episode.

Then we got to the last episode, and the screen cut to black, and suddenly I had a new understanding of it all. 

It doesn’t matter what happens next. The ending of The Sopranos is about a lot of things, many of which are left up to you to parse and analyze, and one of those things is uncertainty. It’s an unwillingness to wrap the story up neatly, a story that rarely followed neat narrative conventions. It’s the same as the Russian in the Pine Barrens – whatever happened to that guy? 

Who knows. 

At its heart this is an incredibly spiritually mature concept. We just don’t know. We can’t know. We can only know what we see and experience, and even that is being filtered through our conditioning and biases. And there are things, essential facts about life and even about ourselves, that will always be beyond our ability to know. That’s the most fundamental truth, and embracing it in all areas of our life – the idea of not knowing, the idea of being okay with ambiguity – is a key to becoming truly happy. 

Of course this is a concept that is absolutely foreign to American narrative. We like puzzles and mysteries, which means we like solutions. We like to have the clues come together to give us an answer; Americans in the 21st century don’t so much watch TV shows as they try to solve them. To not have an answer, to not have everything tied up, everything explained, is anathema to us. It’s why prequels have been so popular – we need to know every detail, nothing can be left untold. There can be no ambiguity. 

In Zen there is the concept of shoshin, the beginner’s mind. It’s the most open a mind can be, the mind of someone who is just starting out, who has no preconceived notions about anything. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few,” says Shunryu Suzuki in his seminal Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

We don’t want the many possibilities. We’re uncomfortable with uncertainty. It’s likely an evolutionary adaptation, something that served us as we were looking to survive in a hostile world. But today we’re not in that same hostile world, and we should try and make friends with that uncertainty, as it’s the only constant. Everything changes, all the time – a truth that is extremely evident to us in this historical moment – so we should make friends with not knowing what is next. 

That’s what the end of The Sopranos invites us to do. I have ideas and thoughts about what happens at the end, about whether or not Tony is alive the next day, but what I have tried to do this latest rewatch is to release those and, in the words of the Coen Bros, accept the mystery. I don’t have to know. It’s okay to not know. And this isn’t a betrayal of the show, which was never averse to leaving things open ended, leaving threads unraveled. Chase recognized that this is how life is; the show itself mentions and plays with Eastern spirituality on a number of occasions, so I think “not knowing” is a concept that Chase was actually going for. 

The next time you watch Made in America, the final episode of The Sopranos, the next time the screen goes black and Don’t Stop Believin’ cuts out suddenly after Steve Perry sings “Don’t stop —” consider not solving it. Consider not needing to know. Consider accepting the uncertainty and accepting the mystery. Know only that you don’t know.